Lib­er­als hate ‘God Bless the USA.’ I love it.

On In­de­pen­dence Day, it’s okay to belt out Lee Green­wood’s syrupy sa­lute, writes

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Arvin Temkar Arvin Temkar is a writer and ed­i­tor in San Francisco. Twit­ter: @atemkar

Ihave an In­de­pen­dence Day tra­di­tion: I like to lis­ten to songs about Amer­ica. My fa­vorites tend to be crit­i­cal of this coun­try in some way, such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” or Bruce Spring­steen’s “Born in the USA.” Th­ese aren’t the flag-wav­ing an­thems their ti­tles sug­gest; they’re sear­ing in­dict­ments of a na­tion that failed its cit­i­zens by leav­ing them poor, stuck and feel­ing — as Spring­steen sings — “like a dog that’s been beat too much.” On our day of na­tional pride, when cel­e­bra­tory words like “free­dom” and “lib­erty” are hurled about like Ro­man can­dles, it feels im­por­tant to re­main clear-eyed about our faults.

But at some point in the day, per­haps af­ter tak­ing in a greed-bash­ing punk tune or Nina Simone’s burn­ing civil rights lament “Mis­sis­sippi God­dam,” I have a secret fa­vorite: Lee Green­wood’s “God Bless the USA.” It’s a song my fel­low lib­er­als love to hate. I love it.

Yes, it is over­wrought and jin­go­is­tic. It glo­ri­fies war. It trum­pets self-right­eous­ness. There’s a rea­son Green­wood was in­vited to per­form the song at the in­au­gu­ra­tions of the last four Repub­li­can pres­i­dents, in­clud­ing Don­ald “Amer­ica First” Trump.

“I’m proud to be an Amer­i­can, where at least I know I’m free,” the song fa­mously de­clares. It’s ex­actly the kind of va­pid In­de­pen­dence Day rhetoric I can’t stand. Not ev­ery­thing about our coun­try is rain­bows and uni­corns. What about gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance? In­sti­tu­tion­al­ized racism? Chil­dren whose fu­tures are de­ter­mined by the Zip codes where they’re born?

And yet I still find my­self moved by this song. Maybe it’s be­cause I grew up sur­rounded by sol­diers in Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base in Ja­pan. I re­mem­ber vis­it­ing home from col­lege and see­ing a soldier I knew sing the song one night at the lo­cal VFW, where my friend was a bar­tender. The soldier’s voice, un­ex­pect­edly beau­ti­ful, gave me chills.

Or maybe it’s be­cause even though my mother is from the Philip­pines and my fa­ther is from In­dia, I have al­ways iden­ti­fied first as Amer­i­can. Or maybe it’s sim­ply the line, so mag­nif­i­cent in its crescendo: “’Cause there ain’t no doubt, I love this land.”

Be­cause de­spite the na­tion’s flaws, I do love this land. I am proud to be an Amer­i­can. And “God Bless the USA,” de­spite its flaws, beau­ti­fully cap­tures that sen­ti­ment. The melody is an ear­worm, the swells are tri­umphant, and the emo­tion — though a bit syrupy — is au­then­tic. I am im­pressed by its raw­ness, its con­vic­tion that we are one peo­ple and that we should be free. I ad­mire its un­abashed en­thu­si­asm, its soft solem­nity.

I’m re­minded of a story about an­other In­de­pen­dence Day stan­dard: “Amer­ica the Beau­ti­ful.” Ray Charles’s en­dur­ing ver­sion ap­pears on the al­bum “A Mes­sage From the Peo­ple,” re­leased in 1972, not long af­ter the height of the civil rights move­ment.

Charles re­vised the song’s lyrics, leav­ing out phrases such as “pil­grim feet” and “al­abaster cities . . . undimmed by hu­man tears.” He later ex­plained: “Some of the verses were just too white for me, so I cut them out and sang the verses about the beauty of the coun­try and the brav­ery of the sol­diers. Then I put a lit­tle coun­try church back beat on it and turned it my way.”

When a black mag­a­zine crit­i­cized Charles for “sell­ing out” by singing the song, he said his at­ti­tude to­ward Amer­ica was like that of a mother chastis­ing a child: “You may be a pain in the ass, you may be bad, but child, you be­long to me.”

I know that feel­ing. It is a sense of im­mense love, even if that love is some­times tinged by dis­ap­point­ment. When Green­wood sings in “God Bless the USA” that he’d “gladly stand up next to you and de­fend her still to­day,” it’s easy to un­der­stand where that sen­ti­ment comes from. You fight for what you love.

I adore “God Bless the USA,” but, like Charles, I want to of­fer my own vari­a­tion of the song — to “turn it my way.” It’s clearly a trib­ute to the armed forces, and I don’t deny the honor in that. But when I lis­ten this In­de­pen­dence Day, I’ll also be think­ing of the men and women who de­fended this coun­try and its val­ues in other ways: peo­ple like Ed­ward R. Murrow, the broad­caster who risked his ca­reer to con­front the dem­a­gogic Sen. Joe McCarthy; Har­vey Milk, who helped pass gay rights leg­is­la­tion in San Francisco be­fore he was as­sas­si­nated; and Rosa Parks, whose coura­geous de­fi­ance was a spark for the civil rights move­ment, in which many were killed.

I think, too, of James Bald­win, who wrote in “Notes of a Na­tive Son” that “I love Amer­ica more than any other coun­try in this world, and, ex­actly for this rea­son, I in­sist on the right to crit­i­cize her per­pet­u­ally.”

For that, as the man says, I’ll gladly stand up.


Lee Green­wood has per­formed his sig­na­ture song at four Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tions.

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